Forced evictions in China
Forced eviction in the People's Republic of China refers to the practice of involuntary land requisitions from the citizenry, typically in order to make room for development projects. In many instances, government authorities working in collusion with private developers seize land from villagers, often with little to no compensation. Forced evictions are particularly common in rural areas, and are a major source of unrest and public protest. By some estimates, up to 65 percent of the 180,000 annual "mass incidents" in China stem from grievances over forced evictions. Citizens who resist or protest the evictions have reportedly been subjected to harassment, beatings, or detention.
The rate of forced evictions has grown significantly since the 1990s, as city and county-level governments have increasingly come to rely on land sales as an important source of revenue. In 2011, the Financial Times reported that 40 percent of local government revenue comes from land sales. Guan Qingyou, a professor at Tsinghua University, estimated that land sales accounted for 74 percent of local government income in 2010.
Under Chinese property law, there is no privately held land; “urban land” is owned by the state, which grants land rights for a set number of years. Rural, or “collectively owned land,” is leased by the state for periods of 30 years, and is theoretically reserved for agricultural purposes, housing and services for farmers.
The underlying assumptions of property law are radically different in Chinese law than in most Western countries, and specifically the "Common Law" of English-speaking countries. In Common Law there is often a degree of ambiguity as to who should benefit from public investment. Governments can legally expropriate land for the public benefit. The State may forcibly evict occupants and extinguish the rights of owners and tenants upon payment of compensation. In most Common Law jurisdictions, the state may expropriate land for on-sale to a private individual or company. To this extent Chinese and Common Law are the same. The difference is that in Common Law there is a presumption that any increase in the value of the land due to changed conditions which give rise to the opportunity for redevelopment for a higher usage should accrue to the land-owner; while in China it is considered just that the economic benefits of public investment should accrue to the people in general.
In China, therefore, when the state invests in public infrastructure – roads, trains, water, electricity distribution, etc. – there will simultaneously be a reconsideration of land use in the areas affected. If a planning decision is taken to re-zone land for a higher use, the state will generally expropriate the land, consolidate it into parcels consistent with the proposed new usage, and then offer it on the market on a new 40–70 year lease (the term depending on the usage). This operation also allows for civic improvements including road widening and the creation of public open space.
Forced evictions are forbidden under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which China has ratified. Under China’s constitution and other property laws, expropriation of urban land is permitted only for the purpose of supporting the “public interest,” and those being evicted are supposed to receive compensation, resettlement, and protection of living conditions. The “public interest” is not defined, however, and abuses are common in the expropriation process, with many citizens complaining of receiving little or no compensation. Collectively owned rural land may be "reallocated" at the discretion of authorities. By reclassifying rural land as urban land, it can then be sold at a profit.
In 2011, China's legislative body implemented a new law limiting the use of violence in forced evictions, as well as outlawing the clearing of property at night and during holidays. Under the 2011 regulation, violent law enforcement measures are to be used only in "emergencies," though the term is not defined. Chinese authorities declared that the law—which took twelve years to draft—would help protect human rights.
43 percent of villages surveyed across China report being the victims of land grabs, and from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, an estimated 40 million Chinese peasants were affected by land requisitions. Since 2005, surveys have indicated a steady increase in the number of forced evictions in China, with local government appropriating the land of approximately 4 million rural Chinese citizens annually.
Forced evictions with inadequate compensation occur frequently in both urban and rural contexts, with even fewer legal protections for rural citizens. In most instances, the land is then sold to private developers at an average cost of 40 times higher per acre than the government paid to the villagers.
Although forced evictions occur throughout China in both rural and urban environments, there are several notable examples in which hundreds of thousands of people were evicted. From 1993 to 2003, 2.5 million people were evicted in the city of Shanghai. In preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, many of Beijing's densely populated neighborhoods were torn down in order to make way for new developments and infrastructure projects. The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions estimated that 1.5 million people in and around Beijing were forced from their homes, often with inadequate compensation. Chinese authorities maintained only 6,000 families were relocated, and that all received proper compensation.
From 1995 to 2005, an average of 86,754 people were evicted annually in connection to the Three Gorges Dam, totaling an estimated 1.4 million people. Recalcitrant residents in the city of Chongqing had their water and electricity turned off in order to force them to move; the residents said they had not yet left because proper resettlement hadn't been arranged.
Protest and opposition
Forced evictions are a common catalyst for organized protests and demonstrations. According to some estimates, as much as 65 percent of the estimated 180,000 annual "mass incidents" (protests) in China stem from grievances over forced evictions. Notable examples of large-scale demonstrations against forced evictions include the December 2011 protests in the Southern village of Wukan, which resulted in the temporary expulsion of Communist Party authorities, and the 2005 Dongzhou protests, which ended with the shooting deaths of several protesting villagers by armed police.
A number of individual protests have also made international headlines: on 26 May 2011, Qian Mingqi, a farmer from Fuzhou whose home had been demolished to make room for a highway, complained of losing 2 million yuan in the forced eviction. After numerous failed attempts to petition authorities for redress, on 26 May 2011, Qian detonated three bombs at government buildings. He was hailed as a hero by many Chinese internet users, who viewed the attacks not as a form of terrorism, but as "righteous vengeance."
In August 2008, two elderly women in their 70s were sentenced to a year of reeducation-through-labor when they applied for a permit to protest in the government's approved "protest zone" during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, were evicted from their Beijing homes in 2001. They were promised compensation and resettlement, but it was never delivered.
Citizens have also resorted to a variety of semi-institutionalized forms of resistance, including petitioning actions and the use of legal channels to challenge forced land requisitions or demand compensation. In the first half of 2004, for instance, China's construction ministry reported receiving petitions from more than 18,600 individuals and 4,000 groups over forced evictions and unlawful transfers of land. Numerous lawyers identifying with the Weiquan (rights defending) movement have taken on cases related to forced evictions. These include lawyers and activists Ni Yulan, Tang Jitian, Gao Zhisheng, and Li Dunyong, among others.
- The Economist, “Protest in China: The Cauldron Boils”, 29 September 2005.
- Elizabeth C. Economy, A Land Grab Epidemic: China’s Wonderful World of Wukans, Council on Foreign Relations, 7 February 2012.
- Congressional Executive Commission on China, 2010 Annual Report. 10 October 2010, pp 41–42
- Rahul Jacob, Drop in China's land sales poses threat to growth, Financial Times, 7 December 2011.
- Simon Rabinovitch, Worries grow as China land sales slump, Financial Times, 5 January 2012.
- Chris Hogg, China law to limit home demolitions and evictions, BBC News, 1 July 2011.
- Eva Pils, 'Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China', Fordham International Law Journal, Volume 30, Issue 4 (2006).
- United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2007), Forced Evictions—Towards Solutions?, ISBN 978-92-113-1909-5.
- Ben Blanchard, Forced evictions dull Games spirit for some in Beijing, Reuters, 6 August 2008.
- Peter Ford, Controversial Three Gorges dam has problems, admits China, Christian Science Monitor, 19 May 2011.
- Shi Jiangtao, Chinese Advisor Confirms Forced Eviction for Three Gorges Project, South China Morning Post, 7 March 2008.
- Andrew Jacobs, Village Revolts Over Inequities of Chinese Life, New York Times, 14 December 2011.
- BBC, Chinese police 'shoot protesters', 7 December 2005.
- Henry Sanderson and Michael Forsythe, Chinese See Communist Land Sales Hurting Mao’s Poor to Pay Rich, Bloomberg, 23 October 2011.
- Peter Ford, ' Chinese bomber receives outpouring of sympathy online', The Christian Science Monitor, 27 May 2011
- Andrew Jacobs, Too Old and Frail to Re-educate? Not in China, New York Times, 20 August 2008.
- Edward Cody, China's Land Grabs Raise Specter of Popular Unrest, Washington Post, 5 October 2004.
- Human Rights in China, Chinese Rights Defense Lawyers Under All-out Attack by the Authorities, 4 June 2009.
- Human Rights Watch, Demolished: Forced Evictions and the Tenants' Rights Movement in China, 25 March 2004